Lethal legacy

This Article was printed in the Toronto Star December 17th.  This article contains numinous videos that are well worth listening to.  But you will have to visit the original article at the Toronto Star website. http://www.thestar.com and then search Lethal Legacy.  then scroll to the Dec 17th article

General Electric’s Peterborough plant was a symbol of opportunity for generations of workers — but did it also make them sick?

By Sara Mojtehedzadeh Work and Wealth Reporter

Photographs by Melissa Renwick

December 17, 2016

1. A silent tragedy

Despite working at the plant since he was 16, Ed Condon carried himself with a gentleness factory life didn’t afford him — never swearing, smoking or drinking. Retirement, his family hoped, would finally heal the bone-deep cracks in his hands, stop the nosebleeds he stubbornly brushed off. There would be more twilight drives down River Rd. with his wife, more rambles in the woods with his three grandchildren.

But Ed Condon always believed the chemicals would kill him first.

In the end, his family says, he was right.

Where he once dreamed of more woodland walks, a simple cross now commemorates him.

“He had such amazing integrity and honour. And he was such an honest man,” says his daughter Cindy Crossley, who lost her father to an inoperable brain tumour in 2012.

“He was my everything.”

Families like the Crossleys say a silent tragedy has ravaged a tight-knit community of Peterborough workers with hundreds of compensation claims filed for often horrific and sometimes terminal diseases — from brain to bowel to lung cancer. The cause, they believe, is prolonged exposure to a dizzying range of human carcinogens used at their former workplace, General Electric — where toxic substances sometimes registered at hundreds of times the levels now considered safe. One occupational disease expert calls the factory in its heyday a “cancer generator.”

But decades after some fell ill, even decades after some died, Cindy Crossley feels justice has yet to be served.

In 2002, a GE-commissioned mortality study obtained by the Star found male employees were up to 57 per cent more likely to die of lung cancer than the general population and female workers up to 129 per cent more likely. GE spokesperson Rahim Ladha says when the study controlled for “other factors” such as age and smoking in a followup report, there was “no statistically significant increase in cancer at the Peterborough facility.” Ladha noted the company’s 125-year history in Peterborough and its employment of tens of thousands of workers, whose health and safety have always been its “number one priority.”

Since 2004, when a government-funded health clinic assessed GE workers for occupational disease, there have been 660 compensation claims made to Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Some 280 have been accepted; more than half have been withdrawn, abandoned or rejected because of apparently insufficient evidence that the conditions were work related.

Now, a group of more than 60 GE retirees are challenging that outcome — and demanding recognition for blue-collar workers they say put their health on the line for their powerful employer.

“It seems like our factory workers were seen as less valuable to society,” says Crossley. “They were expendable.”

A family photo shows a 41-year-old Ed Condon (sixth from right) on General Electric’s grounds. Along with some of his colleagues, he had just graduated from a company-run Grade 12 math class.

Drawing on decades of government inspections and internal documentation, hundreds of archived local news reports and dozens of interviews with retired workers and occupational health experts, the Star found the story of a city, like many across the country, still grappling with the long shadow of heavy industry.

Of grieving families thrust into conflict with a bureaucratic maze that demands what some call an unrealistic standard of proof to win cases for compensation.

Of ordinary workers, often with little formal education, who say their repeated warnings about unsafe working conditions were swept aside for decades.

And of a system that critics say still fails to recognize — and prevent — exposure to toxic substances causing thousands of cancers across Canada every year.

“Nobody is talking about it,” says Dr. Jim Brophy, an occupational disease expert who served as the executive director of Ministry of Labour-funded health clinics in Windsor and Sarnia for 18 years.

“Because disease is easy to sweep under the carpet.”

Once the city’s single biggest employer, General Electric still commands tremendous loyalty in Peterborough, a former industrial powerhouse where solid factory jobs are now ebbing away. The company is considered a leading employer; it funds science education for young people across the country, and its “Ecomagination” program invests in technology to improve and protect the environment. Workers say the still-operational but slimmed-down Peterborough plant is now spotless. But they say, for many years that was not true.

The plant built some of the biggest motors in the world, from diesel locomotive engines, to turbines, to hydro generators, housing a complexity of operations under one roof. It had its own foundry, and made its own plastic, rubber, wires and cables.

“As was the case in many industries that operated for such a long period, the breadth of chemicals used was common, and as more information became available about chemical use, GE, like other industrial companies, reduced or eliminated their usage. GE has always followed the best health and safety practices based on the best knowledge available to us at the time,” Ladha said.

Ed Condon, like many, was grateful for much of what he got in return for his service at General Electric. For a man who dropped out of high school at 16 to support his eight siblings and later his wife and daughter, the factory gave him a sturdy living and helped him pursue personal dreams. A family photo shows a 41-year-old Condon smiling on GE’s front lawn: he has just graduated from a company-run Grade 12 math class.

His family says he had tried at first to conceal his illness; his wife of 40 years, Sandra, says she found icepacks stashed in the basement, later learning he had been trying to cool down his burning skull — one of the symptoms of his aggressively malignant brain tumour.

By the time he collapsed in a coffee shop and was diagnosed with advanced glioblastoma, Condon was also convinced that four decades of chemical exposure at the plant was to blame. In his final months, he took to carefully documenting the chemicals he worked with. The final list was 42 items long and included some of the world’s most deadly substances: arsenic; cyanide; vinyl chloride; asbestos; lead; benzene; DDT; epoxy resins; silica and cadmium.

Cindy Crossley lost her father, Ed Condon, to a brain tumour. He worked at General Electric Peterborough for 42 years.

Listen to Cindy Crossley talk about her father

Indeed, an inventory by the company’s Joint Health and Safety Committee in the mid-1990s found at least 3,000 chemicals actively in use at GE, according to the one-time secretary of the committee John Ball. Some 20 of the substances are now classified as definitive human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“There were so many multiple exposures. The mix is extraordinary,” says Bob DeMatteo, an occupational disease researcher and former director of health and safety for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. “This is to me a cancer generator.”

Nine former workers interviewed by the Star, most with decades of service at GE beginning in the 1960s, described a workplace where asbestos fibres floated thick in the air, where open pots of lead and mercury dotted the shop floor, and where 23 massive dip tanks of varnishes and solvents used to coat and degrease motors belched fumes throughout the plant.

They say they were paid by the number of units they produced until 1988 — incentive to work long, intense hours in dirty conditions. They also say there was sometimes little in the way of protective equipment, at least until roughly 1980. GE denies the claim arguing that protective equipment was “generally used” at the plant.

Ed Condon’s family remembers him being so worried about fumes that he would pad the outside of his welding mask with foam. They remember an odour, which came to be known as “the GE smell,” that clung insistently to his work clothes — clothes he would never bring inside the house for fear of contaminating his family.

“Lots of times the air was so blue we could hardly see,” says Marilyn Harding, who worked at the plant for most of her life alongside her husband Gerry. She survived breast and bladder cancer; Gerry died of pancreatic cancer in 2010. Both their compensation claims were denied.

Workers with the lowest seniority were lowered into dip tanks to clean them, despite the fumes being so noxious they would sometimes pass out, according to Jim Dufresne, who for many years formed part of the so-called labour gang assigned the dirtiest tasks in the plant. They were also handed the job of “plucking the goose” — removing asbestos from the roof of the plant’s Wire and Cable department by hand, he says.

“There was 18 of us on the labour gang. There’s only three of us left. And two of us have cancer,” says Dufresne, 70, a prostate cancer survivor.

Jim Dufresne worked at GE since he was 16. Now 70, he says he has lost so many colleagues to cancer that he now has a hard time getting close to people. “Been to 10 or 11 funerals this year, and the year isn’t over,” he said.

Government reports obtained by the Star repeatedly warned of poor housekeeping, shoddy ventilation, lack of personal protective equipment, and noted the sheer volume of materials now known to be carcinogenic used at GE. One report from 1968 says the plant gobbled up 40,000 lbs. of lead a week. Another from 1971 said in a single day, the plant plowed through 500 lbs. of asbestos — whose negative health effects were well-known by the 1920s and linked to lung cancer by 1955. During the visit, the inspector noted “a considerable amount of asbestos fibres… accumulated on the floor, which suggested that the floor had not been cleaned for days.”

“What I have read and heard of the work environment in Peterborough, it is impossible there would not be, I think, a substantial number of people with illnesses and diseases related to those exposures,” says Brophy, whose groundbreaking research on factory workers in Sarnia exposed one of the biggest occupational disease disasters in Canadian history.

“They were exposed, from what I can understand, to a toxic soup.”

The Star read more than 30 inspection reports, dated from 1945 to 1981, by the Ministries of Health and Labour which warned of unsafe working conditions or found what would now be considered unsafe levels of toxic substances such as lead, mercury, beryllium and uranium. Even at the time, the levels were in excess of government regulations on at least 18 occasions.

A report from 1961, for example, found highly toxic biphenyls at five to 11 times the legal limit of the time. Today, that would be up to 220 times the allowable amount. In 1971, asbestos levels at the plant were recorded at 100 times today’s legal limit — double the allowable amount at the time. The reports continued to note concerning working conditions and chemical exposures into the 1980s.

Former GE workers volunteer time to map the usage of some of the human carcinogens formerly used in their workplace. Bob DeMatteo, a retired occupational disease expert helping them, sometimes uses a gavel to keep order during heated discussions.

Government inspectors did not always take air samples or issue orders to the company — even when problems were identified, the reports show. But the Star obtained hundreds of pages of minutes from the plant’s Joint Health and Safety Committee from the 1970s and 80s documenting repeated employee concerns about health and safety, as well as alarming physical symptoms shown by workers on the job.

In one entry from 1980, for example, a highly disoriented worker named Linden Jackson was rushed to hospital after spending two hours wiping down an armature with toluene — a chemical now known to severely damage the nervous system and to contain carcinogenic benzene. Ball, the committee’s former secretary, says Jackson was so confused at the time he couldn’t remember his own phone number. A medical consultant for the Ministry of Labour said Jackson’s illness was “not directly attributable” to toluene; no air samples were taken during the ministry’s inspection.

“It was like a foggy day in that building,” says Ball, who was an underwater diver in the navy before he started working at GE. He now lives with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

“The only protection you had was built in,” he adds, pointing to his lungs. He received a $3,000 lump sum from the WSIB for his incurable illness.

For years, Ball warned GE it was endangering its workers — many of whom were life-long employees. In 1995, a risk-mapping project by the Ministry of Labour-funded Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) concluded that working conditions in the plant’s armature department “remained poor and of great concern… and the hazards were not eliminated or substituted even in 1995.”

GE spokesperson Rahim Ladha said the company has made “significant renovations” over the years, investing in “remediation, health and safety measures, new technologies and equipment, and modernization of our building space.” The armature department has since been moved to a new building, he said.

“GE remains committed to investing in our Peterborough Plant to ensure our operations comply with all present regulations and health and safety standards,” Ladha added.

But cancers take decades to show up after potentially hazardous exposures and, critics say, are poorly tracked by government. It was not until 2004 that Noel Kerin, a doctor with OHCOW, was tasked with reviewing a selection of 120 former GE employees struck by the disease.

He says he was stunned by the “unbelievable” scale and complexity of past exposures described by those he interviewed. To this day, he says the case of GE Peterborough workers is one of the largest and most convoluted in OHCOW’s history.

“It really is filling in the sordid face of the industrial revolution,” he says.

In February 2005, Kerin told the City of Peterborough’s health unit he believed at least half the illnesses he saw were work-related — and warned there could be hundreds more cases in the pipeline.

“I told them the genie is out of the bottle. And it’s not going back in.”

Ed Condon lived to watch that prediction unfold. By the time he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, hundreds of his former colleagues had already placed workers’ compensation claims for chronic and often fatal illnesses. His family says he chose to finish life with quiet purpose, to see through the summer with his three grandchildren — and to have his story heard, too.

“He never went to that negative place. But he was passionate about making sure that the right people were held accountable for the deplorable conditions in which the workers went to work every single day,” his daughter Cindy says.

He died at 63, just hours before his three grandchildren started back for their first day of school.

But as his family would find in the years that followed, their testimony, and that of many others, was not enough to win compensation — leading some to wonder whether the system is fit for purpose.

“I would say this is one of the most striking examples of the post-modern industrial era,” Kerin says. “We went from not knowing to not caring.”

Roger Fowler wipes away his tears while reading one of his poems during the Celebration of Life, an annual event organized by former GE employees to honour those who have died of cancer.

2.‘The system has failed us all’

By age 46, Roger Fowler had survived the removal of his rectum, and mastered the art of living with a permanent colostomy bag. By 48, he had learned to wrap the football-sized hernias pressing on his bladder, the result of seemingly endless surgeries. By 56, he had finally beaten colorectal cancer, a product, he believes, of working for years under asbestos-wrapped pipes that rained chunks of toxic snow.

But when Fowler tried to prove his case to the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, he says he was confronted with bureaucracy, delay and disappointment.

After four years of fighting, the decision from the board’s final level of appeal denying him benefits arrived two weeks before Christmas in 2009. It took him three months to tell his wife.

“I didn’t know what to do or say,” he says. “I was stunned. Literally sick, mentally and physically sick, because of the answer.”

Over the past 10 years, more than half of the 660 occupational disease claims made by employees of GE Peterborough for a range of conditions — including brain, bowel and lung cancer — have been denied, abandoned or withdrawn for apparently insufficient evidence. Some 280 have been accepted. But after decades of exposure to what one scientist describes as a “toxic soup” of chemicals, Fowler and others with unsuccessful claims feel their life-changing tragedies are at risk of sinking into oblivion.

They blame a system that demands what they call a virtually unobtainable standard of proof to win compensation. They blame a 2002 GE-authored report that concluded there were no “significant excesses” of cancers at its facility. And like workers seeking compensation for occupational disease across the province, they have been left wondering — when decisions are made, whose evidence matters?

“The system has failed us all. The GE has failed us all. And one (report) saying everything is fine has defeated everyone who got sick or died,” says Fowler. “It’s gut wrenching.”

Cancer survivor Roger Fowler’s many surgeries have resulted in multiple hernias. Currently, he has one the size of a football. When he needs to do heavy lifting at home, he wraps it with tape. Removing the tape causes agonizing pain.

In a statement to the Star, GE spokesperson Rahim Ladha said the company “sympathized on a personal level” with workers and their families impacted by cancer and said it “works co-operatively with the WSIB to provide information in response to claims as requested.”

The WSIB told the Star it was committed to providing timely services to workers with occupational diseases and said it weighs the merits of each case using information about the claimant’s condition and workplace, as well as scientific studies “that may support a link between work exposures and a worker’s condition.” Over the past decade, the board has consistently approved an average of 41 per cent of occupational disease cases, its statistics show.

But experts say many workers never even file a claim. When they do, they must confront their powerful employers and wrestle with complex, ever-changing science — all while saddled with illness and grief.

“There’s a systemic barrier to actually looking at what’s happening to these blue-collar workers behind factory walls,” says Dr. Jim Brophy, an expert in occupational disease whose research into breast cancer in the workplace won him an award from the American Public Health Association in 2013.

“If compensation boards recognize these cases then the onus is on the government to go do something about them. We’re caught in this vicious cycle.”

Occupational disease claims are far more expensive for the WSIB than other types of injuries. A 2007 cost estimate by the board shows that a successful claim for gastrointestinal cancer, for example, would pay an average lump sum of around $42,000. The claim would also cover health care, and the worker or their family might be eligible for loss of earnings and survivor benefits that could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Although not a fair trade for years of wrestling with cancer, the money would have meant more stability for Fowler in old age, instead of having to “save, stock up, whatever, to get through.” He and his wife have given up on long-held dreams like visiting Ayers Rock in Australia — named after his great-great uncle, he says.

Fowler and many others feel their cases were stymied by the evidence contained in a 2002 health report conducted by GE Peterborough. The study analyzed the link between eight carcinogens used at the plant and cancer deaths. It found significant excesses of some kinds of cancer, including lung cancer mortality among male employees up to 57 per cent higher than the general population. A followup study said the detected cancer excesses disappeared when controlling for other factors such as age and smoking.

“Any contention to the contrary ignores the actual findings in the study and mischaracterizes its true conclusions,” Ladha said in a statement to the Star.

Bob DeMatteo, an occupational health researcher and former director of health and safety with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, says GE’s report has “serious methodological deficits” that put its conclusions “in serious question.” He says the scope of the report was too small to accurately reflect the scale of the issue: for example, it only includes workers who have died of cancer, rather than the entire working population with non-fatal cancers. The study was also too limited, DeMatteo says, to reliably capture an increased risk of cancer due to workplace chemicals.

He calls it “critically misleading to report that there was no association between lung cancers and exposures to carcinogens selected, without also indicating that the sample size made it impossible to detect a real risk if it was there.”

Detractors say the report was never comprehensively peer reviewed — and was carried out by the company’s own industrial hygienist, Dr. Roland Hosein, formerly GE’s vice-president of Environment, Health and Safety and later a member of the WSIB’s Research Advisory Council.

“All I can say is it is no longer accepted that you do published science when you’re being paid by one side and the outcome of that science reflects on the future of your boss,” says Dr. Noel Kerin, who works for the Ministry of Labour-funded Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers and conducted assessments of Peterborough workers with cancer in 2004.

Hosein, now an adjunct occupational health professor at the University of Toronto, declined to comment. Ladha said GE rejected the conflict of interest allegations. He said the report was initiated at the request of workers and their union, and conducted with “a widely accepted method.” He also said GE sent the report to an expert contracted by the workers’ union and to the WSIB for “external and independent” review.

“While Dr. Hosein — a respected PhD in epidemiology and the primary author of the study — was a GE employee, the external and independent representative of the union and the local Medical Officer of Health were actively engaged throughout the design phase of the study. Both individuals accepted and acknowledged the epidemiologic method that formed the basis of the study,” Ladha said.

The study also describes the plant’s layout and the exposure risk in each department — evidence that was cited heavily in Fowler’s denial from the board’s appeals tribunal. The Star conducted in-depth interviews with more than a dozen former workers or surviving family members who call the study’s description misleading because some departments were separated by little more than a chain-link fence.

“They have to admit that there were no walls in there,” Fowler says, arguing that the main shop floor was designed to be able to drive a fire truck through it and that the building’s negative pressure ventilation system sucked fumes from one area to another.

Diane Carl says she was once stunned to participate in a phone call between the WSIB and her dying husband in which the board repeatedly asked about “the wall” separating his work space from Switchgear — a department where inspectors repeatedly warned of high levels of cancer-causing substances such as trichloroethylene, asbestos and lead.

“He asked her, ‘have you ever been to the shop?’ She said, ‘no,’” recalls Carl. “He said, ‘could I suggest you come down here and look at the building? It’s wide open.’”

Art Carl, who worked at the plant for 44 years, died in 2010 from colon cancer that spread to his liver, lungs and brain. His WSIB claim was denied because the board said he needed to prove 15 years of exposure to asbestos, but only proved 11.

Sue James worked at the plant for 30 years, as did her father — who died with a tumour in his lung and four on his spine. In recent years, James has helped compile a list of all her former colleagues at the plant she knows became sick or died of cancer. The list is more than 200 names long. While her father’s compensation claim was accepted, she says she is pained that many others were not.

“It’s so obvious to me,” she says. “To all of the people that worked there. It was a cesspool.”

Sue James’ father, Gord Rath, worked at GE for three decades and died with a tumour in his lung and four on his spine.

Listen to Sue James talk about her father

Some clues, says James, lie beyond factory walls. Drawing on local news archives, the Star found repeated reports of environmental contamination, which some workers believe speaks to the scale of risk inside the plant, too.

In 1971, for example, a chemical reaction to a 2,000-gallon resin tank at the GE plant created a plume of irritating gas across the city. Some 19 firefighters sent into the factory later developed recurring illnesses such as skin rashes, lung diseases and heart problems — prompting the WSIB to conduct an investigation into the incident in 1979. It is unclear how many firefighters were ultimately compensated.

In 1982, a leaking pipe at the plant dumped 20 gallons of poisonous cyanide solution into Peterborough’s sewer system. According to local news reports, a city official at the time said the accident was unlikely to pose a health hazard.

In 1994, the company was forced to withdraw its offer to sell land to the city for a new arena because its soil was found to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cancer-causing chemicals that can also harm fetuses.

In 2015, a Ministry of Environment report obtained by the Star cited multiple examples of the plant’s storm sewers — which drain into the Otonabee River — still failing to meet “site criteria” for PCBs. Although GE stopped using the now-banned substance in the 1970s, PCBs are almost impossible to eliminate from soil and sediment.

Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the ministry said the levels of PCB contamination at GE were low and there were no anticipated impacts on human health. He said at the “direct request” of the ministry, the company continues to take a number of “remediation and monitoring actions to ensure protection of public health and the environment.” GE spokesperson Ladha said the company has spent tens of millions of dollars on cleaning up PCBs and continues to work co-operatively with the government.

GE’s storm sewer system drains into Little Lake on the Otonabee River, where the Ministry of Environment is tracking PCB levels.

Overall, Brophy calls such evidence “an incredible barometer of what the work environment looked like.” Yet many former GE workers seeking compensation say proving their case has sometimes felt like using a slingshot to break a brick wall.

At other workplaces where cancer was a risk, such as the Owens-Corning fibreglass plant in Sarnia, external organizations, among them McMaster University, conducted independent health studies that later helped the WSIB adjudicate claims. That has not happened at GE Peterborough. Instead, former employees, who are often sick or grieving, have relied largely on their own documentation.

“We have to come up with all the information (for WSIB). During times of grieving, we’re not thinking the best,” says Cindy Crossley, whose father Ed Condon died of an inoperable brain tumour in 2012 at age 63.

In testimony provided to the board, Dr. Kerin of the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers said Condon’s prolonged exposure to workplace carcinogens was akin to conditions faced by firefighters, who are automatically entitled to workers’ compensation for a range of cancers including brain tumours.

Condon’s claim was denied earlier this year because the board ruled his workplace exposures were “not likely” to have “significantly contributed” to his disease.

“Here’s a person that may have a fatal disease. It’s hard mounting a case when you’re healthy and full of vigour,” Brophy says. “But if you’re 65 years old and you got lung cancer — how the hell are you supposed to pull that off?”

The Canadian workers’ compensation model is based on an important compromise: employers agree to fund the system through insurance premiums, sharing the liability for workplace injuries. In return, injured workers receive benefits — and give up their right to sue their employers. The model eliminates the churn of expensive lawsuits seen in the U.S. — but is predicated on workers having a fair shot at benefits if they fall ill.

Currently, Kerin says he thinks the WSIB is “looking for proof beyond reasonable doubt,” noting that worker’s compensation boards are supposed to make decisions based on a balance of probabilities.

Christine Arnott, a spokesperson for the board said there was “no burden of proof on either the worker or employer” when dealing with claims, and that the board simply “gathers relevant information, weighs evidence and makes decisions.”

But Fowler and his wife Gladys, who met on the dance floor of Peterborough’s Empress Hotel 40 years ago, say they have often felt helpless and sidelined, despite decades of first-hand experience both inside the plant and out.

“I didn’t know it was asbestos, but I mean when Roger would come home, he’d go right downstairs and strip his clothes off and throw them in the washing machine,” Gladys says. “You could see the fibres, too.”

“What we say doesn’t carry any weight,” Fowler says.

DeMatteo says the complexity of GE workers’ compensation claims is undeniable: the work involved a confusing array of carcinogens, the exposures happened decades ago, and retrospectively gathering evidence is hard. But he says it is not the fault of average workers that occupational disease is not adequately tracked across the province. And given the overall risks now documented at GE, he says its workers — not its chemicals — should be given the benefit of the doubt.

“The whole question is, what do you do in the face of scientific uncertainty?” he asks. “And that’s no longer a scientific question. It’s a question of values and whether you value human life or you don’t.”

Diane Carl passes Marilyn Harding (right) a quartz, while Sandy LeBeau watches and Sandra Condon can be seen in the mirror. When handed the crystal, each of the widows took their turn to say what they needed extra help with, without their loved ones around.

3.A river of loneliness

The light is streaming into a delicately wallpapered living room, where four items adorn a small wood coffee table — each a talisman of strength. A small, silver Bible. A set of wedding rings. A photo framed in gold. And a Valentine’s Day card, the last one Marilyn Harding received before her husband Gerry died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.

“Marilyn,” the inscription says in neat, block letters. “You are all there is for me. I love you.”

Four women are gathered here, all widows of General Electric Peterborough. They believe decades of exposure to what are now known to be some of the world’s most toxic carcinogens killed their husbands.

Cancer has carved a river of loneliness through these lives.

“You get up in the morning, and you don’t have anybody to say good morning to,” says Harding. “The quietness is hard.”

All four have taken on the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, seeking compensation for their husband’s fatal cancers. All four have lost.

“Twenty-one years on, I’m probably the longest running one looking for hope and justice with WSIB on this issue,” says Sandy LeBeau, whose husband Ron died of stomach cancer in 1995. He was 39.

Sandy LeBeau lost her husband, Ron, to stomach cancer in 1995. He was 39 years old and had been working at the plant since 1975.

Listen to Sandy LeBeau talk about her husband

So far, justice has proved elusive. And while hundreds of GE Peterborough workers have sought recompense for what they see as the toxic legacy of a bygone era, experts say their story is not a relic of time. It is a living monster.

“(The system) is broken in a way that has ramifications not just for injured workers but for our whole society because that early warning system we should have is not there. These are the canaries in the mine,” says Dr. Jim Brophy, whose research on asbestos-exposed workers in Sarnia revealed one of the biggest occupational disease tragedies in Canadian history.

In Ontario, there are more than one million people currently exposed to known human carcinogens in the workplace, according to a national occupational disease research project called CAREX Canada. While much of that exposure is at safe levels, the province’s top six workplace carcinogens alone cause at least 2,500 cases of cancer every year, estimates from the Toronto-based Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) show.

But across the province, there is no system to track, monitor and prevent occupational disease.

Doctors do not routinely gather information about patients’ work history — meaning vital warning signs about workplace cancers go undetected, and victims often don’t file compensation claims because they are not even aware their illness could be work related.

And, some experts charge, the province’s worker compensation board still bases its decisions on a narrow and outdated understanding of occupational disease — an area of research that still receives little attention and funding.

“What happens to these exposed people is really a very important health indicator of what’s in store for the general population unless something is done,” Brophy says. “That’s one of the tragedies of a lax compensation system and a lax Ministry of Labour.”

The WSIB said it “continues to work closely with the Peterborough community” and reconsiders new information on workers’ files when submitted. GE said it works co-operatively with the board to respond to those cases, and sympathized “with any family, particularly those that are part of our GE family, who have had to deal with or face such serious illnesses.”

Former employees who have already filed hundreds of worker compensation claims say Peterborough offers a cautionary tale to the rest of the country.

“This is a huge burden of grief on this city,” says Heather Brooks-Hill, a palliative care professional who now helps co-ordinate a group of GE retirees affected by cancer called the Occupational and Environmental Health Coalition. “It’s multiple loss. It would be like wartime where everyone knew someone who died.”

GE says the health and safety of its employees has always been its “number one priority.” But some workers say more could have been done to protect people on the job.

Following assessments of GE Peterborough workers by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) in 2004, the City of Peterborough’s board of health held briefing sessions for local doctors and nurses “to provide education regarding possible occupational health issues, and to support patients with information about how to make a claim to WSIB.” The city says it “continues to perform regular surveillance on local cancer rates.”

But experts say that is not enough. Health-care providers in Ontario do not, as a rule, maintain an occupational health record for their patients, leaving workers — and policy makers — in the dark about occupational cancer risks.

“The dominant paradigm within the cancer world is that work and environment play almost no role,” says Brophy.

“Health-care providers don’t have training, for the most part, in asking people about what they work with,” adds Dr. Paul Demers, director of OCRC, a senior scientist at Cancer Care Ontario, and a professor at the University of Toronto. “No information is kind of routinely collected and kept.”

Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto does have a mesothelioma screening program and is a leader in treating the disease, an aggressive form of lung cancer. It is almost always caused by workplace exposure to asbestos – a carcinogen that the federal government finally agreed to ban this month after decades of criticism.

Even though mesothelioma is by far the most recognized occupational disease, Demers says only about 40 to 50 per cent of such cases are ever compensated. The situation is worse for less well-known conditions. Despite workplaces causing thousands of cancers every year in Ontario, just 397 of the 174,000 compensation cases the WSIB accepted in 2015 were for so-called long-latency illnesses such as cancer, board statistics show.

For more than a decade, experts have urged the WSIB and government to take action.

In 2005, Brophy participated in an Occupational Disease Advisory panel convened by the WSIB. In their final report, the panel noted that most diseases caused in the workplace are not even listed in the board’s policy or legislation. There have been two updates to its occupational disease regulations since, the board told the Star.

But still, Brophy says, “They are decades behind.”

He argues the board still looks “for evidence that shows definitive causation and association,” which can lead to many claims — such as those of GE retirees — being rejected. But a 2016 Supreme Court decision ruled that workers’ compensation boards cannot demand definitive proof that an illness is work-related, especially since existing scientific research on occupational disease is sometimes inconclusive.

Instead, the Supreme Court said compensation boards must consider all available evidence and decide on the balance of probabilities whether a workplace contributed to a claimant’s illness. If so, workers are entitled to compensation. In borderline cases, the court said workers must be given the benefit of the doubt.

“That’s not happening,” says Brophy of the WSIB.

In a statement, board spokesperson Christine Arnott said its “existing adjudication principles are consistent” with the Supreme Court decision and have not changed in response to it.

“I don’t think compensation is everything. I’m a prevention person,” says Demers. “But you have to recognize the magnitude of the problem (through compensation) in order to really push prevention. Or even more broadly, recognize it through the Ministry of Labour.”

A report produced for the WSIB in 2010 determined that the province had “no effective reporting or surveillance of occupational disease or exposures” and no central repository of data on the subject. It also said there was little interaction between the ministries of labour, environment and health in tackling occupational disease even though the issue impacts all three and warned that the province suffered from a shortage of trained experts in occupational health.

Six years later, the Ministry of Labour still does not have any kind of comprehensive health surveillance or monitoring program. The ministry does not track how much money is specifically spent on enforcement efforts related to occupational exposure, said spokesperson Janet Deline. The ministry has a legislated asbestos registry, but nothing for any other kind of workplace carcinogen.

Peterborough’s industrial legacy has left some concerned about the environment. City authorities have tackled issues like PCB contamination at old landfills like this one off Harper Road.

The WSIB has a registry for “unplanned exposure incidents,” but it is voluntary, does not record information about the severity of the exposure, does not collect medical information from workers or health-care providers and looks only at individual cases rather than populations at risk. There is no dedicated funding for the program. Deline said the Ministry of Labour does not receive data from the registry. The WSIB told the Star that while it does not report the data, “designated users” at the ministry had access to all of the board’s statistics.

“The tracking system is a joke,” Brophy says. “I don’t think anybody can even remotely argue that this thing is tracking the exposed population.”

Deline said employers are required to report information regarding occupational illnesses when advised by a worker or when a compensation claim is filed. She said the ministry works closely with partners such as Public Health Ontario and along with the WSIB, funds organizations such as OHCOW. The ministry is also developing an Occupational Disease Action Plan “in order to prevent hazardous exposures in Ontario workplaces” through “education and training, enforcement and research.”

Meanwhile at Queen’s Park, new legislation — Bill 70 — is moving ahead and will quietly scale back routine health and safety inspections in favour of employer self-compliance. Deline said the law “is designed to be a means to motivate workplaces with strong employer and labour relationships to continue to exceed minimum compliance and strive for excellence in health and safety.”

John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and himself a survivor of occupational cancer, calls the proposal “a horrific mistake.”

“We will be telling the government that there’s no way that’s acceptable,” he says.

“This is a failed policy practice that has been an absolute ideological cover for deregulation resulting in increased harm to workers,” says Bob DeMatteo, an occupational disease expert and former director of health and safety for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

“It was lax enforcement which allowed GE to do what it did to the health of (Peterborough) workers,” he adds. GE spokesperson Rahim Ladha says the company has always “adhered to the health and safety practices that were appropriate for the time and enhanced those practices as scientific research and best practices in industrial health and safety emerged.”

Passive enforcement may be increasingly problematic with the rise of precarious work, which some say complicates vulnerable workers’ ability to stand up for their right to a safe workplace or refuse to work with dangerous substances. Researchers at Ryerson University recently warned of a looming public health “crisis” due to a growing number of temp agency employees who, among other things, complained of unsafe exposure to chemicals.

“If you’re temporary anyway, who is going to raise a complaint if you think you could lose your job in the short term about it?” Demers says.

Ultimately, since WSIB benefits are funded by employers’ insurance premiums, Brophy says, when the system fails those with occupational cancer, the public health-care system bears the burden.

“What I see as happening is the compensation board is assisting the industry and employers in allowing them to download the cost and liability of occupational disease onto the public.”

“When we ignore (this), well — that’s how these chemicals and toxic substances get so ubiquitous in the whole society,” he adds. “They end up in our food, in our water, in our consumer products.”

In the meantime, workers of GE Peterborough say they are still waiting for recognition — and closure.

“It’s hard to figure out how (the WSIB) can turn down some claims and accept others. It’s like they threw names into a hat,” says Harding, whose own compensation claims for breast and bladder cancer were rejected along with her husband’s. Both worked at GE’s Peterborough plant for more than 30 years.

“These people knew they were sick and knew the chemicals were causing problems,” says Dr. Noel Kerin of OHCOW. “If nothing else, restoring the dignity of these people — well, if you don’t have dignity, you don’t have too much else.”

Harding says she misses Gerry, who she met at church when she was 16, when she hears Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” When she is gardening. When she must make decisions without her partner of four decades by her side. When she is too far away from his grave.

“The feeling — I’m too far away from him. I can’t stand it,” she recalls of her first trip away from Peterborough after he died. “It was an awful feeling.”

Marilyn Harding worked at the plant with her husband Gerry for decades before he died of pancreatic cancer. On occasions like their anniversary, Marilyn visits his grave site. “I know he’s not here anymore, but you still need somewhere to come,” she says.

To beat down the loneliness, GE retirees like Harding have gathered for the past five years to celebrate the lives of colleagues they lost. At this year’s ceremony, they conjured the words of poet Khalil Gibran, who once wrote of a city defined by the “cloud of thick dark smoke that rose up from its forges and its factories.”

“There, between the city of the living and the city of the dead, I sat and mused upon the endless struggle and the ceaseless turbulence in life,” the poem says.

But workers of GE Peterborough say their struggle is not over. And they say they will not cease until they crack the silence hanging over their city.

“You’re all fighting for the same thing. Justice,” Harding says.

With support from their former union and the provincial Office of the Worker Adviser (OWA), GE retirees are now preparing to appeal more than 60 claims at the WSIB — having poured hundreds of hours of their own time into extensively documenting health risks at the plant. Alec Farquhar, the OWA’s director, says any new GE Peterborough files referred to his office will be given high priority status because they are part of an occupational disease cluster.

“This means that they will receive immediate attention as they are referred to OWA and will be opened immediately if we determine that there is a reasonable chance of success.”

Diane Carl’s husband, Art, worked at the GE for 44 years and died of colon cancer that spread to his liver, lung and brain.

Listen to Diane Carl talk about her husband

The four women gathered in Diane Carl’s soft pink living room have watched cancer ravage their community. They say they want a system that is more responsive to workers who put their health on the line for a job — and will prevent future tragedies.

“I doubt I’ll ever in my lifetime see an end to this,” says Carl, who lost her husband Art to colon cancer that spread to his liver, lungs and brain.

“I’ve said to my kids, you better make damn good sure you keep (documents) and don’t let it go. You know, because it’s the principle.”

Sandy LeBeau agrees.

“We’ve got another generation of people out there who need to be safe.”

 

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